MADRID, September 20 – Champions Barcelona got their title bid back on track with a 2-1 win over bogey side Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday to stay within three points of league leaders Valencia.Barcelona, humiliated 2-0 by Hercules in their last league outing, had lost their last two trips to the Calderon but first-half goals from Argentine Lionel Messi and Spain World Cup star Gerard Pique inflicted a first defeat of the season on Atletico.
It was Barca coach Pep Guardiola’s first win at Atletico, who had a maximum six points before kick-off, and his side climbed to fifth a point behind Real Madrid and three points off Valencia.
His joy, however, was tempered by seeing Messi stretchered off in the final minute after having his ankle kicked by Czech defender Tomasz Ujfalusi, who was sent off for the tackle.
Earlier Valencia replaced Real Madrid at the top of La Liga winning 2-1 at promoted Hercules to make it a perfect nine-point start to the season.
It was Atletico’s second defeat in a week following their 1-0 Europa League loss to Aris Salonica, however they stay third in the league above Barcelona on goal difference.
Barcelona were on a high after their 5-1 thrashing of Panathinaikos in the Champions League and had a full strength team with eight Spanish World Cup winners in the starting XI.
Atletico received a boost with forward Sergio "Kun" Aguero shrugging off a knock to start.
David Villa hit the post for Barcelona to give Atletico their first warning.
Then on 13 minutes Barca took the lead when Messi flicked the ball into the corner of the net with the outside of his boot after being fed by Pedro Rodriguez.
Atletico responded quickly and were level in the 25th minute when Raul Garcia headed in a Simao corner after goalkeeper Victor Valdes had mis-timed his punch.
Barca took seven minutes to restore their lead with defender Pique finishing like a striker.
Pique controlled a Messi corner on his chest and drilled a low shot into the corner for his first goal of the season.
Xavi and Pedro forced Atletico goalkeeper David de Gea, only 19 but being tipped for a bright future, to produce two smart saves early in the second half.
Villa could have killed the game off but fired over on 73 minutes and was denied by the terrific de Gea in a one-on-one minutes later.
Atletico’s Ujfalusi was sent off in the dying seconds for hacking down Messi who clutched his ankle on going down and left the field on a stretcher.
The Atletico defeat means Valencia, league champions in 2002 and 2004, are the only team with a flawless record after a 2-1 win over Hercules on Sunday.
Hercules won 2-0 at Barca last time out but goals from Spanish international Juan Mata and Pablo Hernandez were enough for Valencia, who played most of the second half with ten men following the dismissal of defender David Navarro.
Villarreal climbed up to fourth with a 2-1 win at promoted Levante on Sunday.
Brazilian international striker Nilmar scored a first half brace for Villarreal who sit a point behind second-placed Real.
Unbeaten Sevilla travel to Malaga in Sunday’s late match looking to bounce back from their 1-0 loss to Paris Saint Germain in the Europa League.